Fact vs. Myth


Myth:  Billy the Kid was born on November 23, 1859 in New York City.

Fact:  Ash Upson, one of the men greatly responsible for the myth of Billy the Kid, gave this date when he wrote majority of Pat Garrett’s biography The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid and might I add that the November 23rd date happens to be Upson's birth date too -coincidence?  Billy the Kid‘s exact date of birth and place is not known, and historians and biographers today are still trying to solve the mystery.  Birth dates of November 20, 1859 and September 17, 1859 have popped up, but there's no proof or even a hint of these dates being accurate.  As for where Billy the Kid was born; New York, Indiana, and Missouri are potential birth places, but there is no -without a doubt- proof to support any of them. At the time of his death, it was consistently written that Billy the Kid was born in New York City, so it's very possible that it could be true and that the writers of that era knew something we don't. Due to the testimonies by the Kid’s friends and acquaintances, it's very possible and most likely that the Kid was born later than 1859, possibly around 1860-62.  Childhood friends in Silver City said that he was about 12 years old in 1873, and the Coe cousins would go on to say that the Kid was about 17 years old during the Lincoln County War in early 1878. Lincoln resident, Lily Casey, would also say that the Kid was barely 16 when he was jailed in Lincoln in November of 1877. This would then make him under 21 years old at the time of death. Garrett may have deliberately made the Kid 21 years old to make him an adult man when he shot him, instead of giving the harsh reality of gunning down a kid possibly still in his teens. In the end, it made no difference of age, Garrett was still viewed with suspicion.

Myth: Billy the Kid had a younger brother named Edward or (another story) he had a older brother named Joseph.

Fact: The Kid did not have a younger brother named Edward, but he did have a younger brother named Joseph. It's been believed that Joseph was the older brother due to an error on his death certificate when he died in November of 1930, which stated his age as seventy-six, thus making his year of birth 1854. But there's more than enough proof that he was born in 1863, making him two-three years younger than Billy the Kid. For more details of this proof  click here for The Antrim Family  web page.

Myth: At the age twelve, Billy the Kid killed his first man who had insulted his mother. After the killing, he bid his mother farewell and ran away.

Fact:  The above is an example of some of the hogwash written about Billy the Kid. First of all, the Kid’s mother died from consumption a year before he escaped from the Silver City jail and "ran away." Secondly, it wasn't because he killed a man, but it was for being an accomplice in the theft of some laundry. The Kid then fled to Arizona and on August 18, 1877 at Fort Grant, he killed his first man. His name was Frank “Windy” Cahill, a bully who tormented the slender teenager, who may have been about sixteen at the time, on several occasions until the Kid had enough of his abuse. During an argument, the bully rushed the Kid, sat on him and pummeled him in the face, since the Kid knew he was no match for the heavyweight, he shot him. Though it was purely self-defense, the Kid was wanted for murder.

Myth: As a young boy, Billy the Kid was given a Barlow knife as a gift and he used it to decapitate a neighbor's kitten.

Fact: Absolutely not! Just a figment of someone's twisted imagination -nothing more than anti-Billy the Kid rubbish.

Myth: Billy the Kid was short, chubby and ugly.

Fact: Here is an unbiased statement from a reporter of the Las Vegas Gazette:  “He is about five feet eight or nine inches tall, slightly built and lithe, weighing about 140; a frank, open countenance, looking like a school boy, with the traditional silky fuzz on his upper lip; clear blue eyes, with a roguish snap about them; light hair and complexion. He is, in all, quite a handsome looking fellow, the only imperfection being two prominent front teeth slightly protruding like squirrel’s teeth, and he has agreeable and winning ways.” Las Vegas Gazette, December 27, 1881            

“I never liked the picture. I don’t think it does Billy justice.” Paulita Maxwell on Billy the Kid’s only authentic photograph.  

So if Billy the Kid was as butt-ugly as some say, why did he have so many female admirers and every description said about him (whether by man or woman) all say he was a "fine looking lad" or "handsome with boyish good looks." As historian Drew Gomber, of the Hubbard Museum, once said, "We shouldn't judge him by that photo of him, because everyone who knew him said it was a bad photo and it's essentially like judging  someone by their driver's license photo."

Myth: Billy the Kid was left-handed.

Fact:  He was ambidextrous, but primarily right-handed. Due to the reverse image of the only known photograph of Billy the Kid, it gave the incorrect impression that he was left-handed because his revolver is positioned on the left side. Someone finally realized the imaged was flipped by looking at the Winchester rifle.

Myth: Billy the Kid had a hair-trigger temper, which could explode with the slightest provocation.

Fact: Everyone who came in contact with the Kid, either friend, foe or a reporter, all agree that the Kid had an easygoing personality, a wonderful sense of humor, and was always in good spirits, despite any situation, whether it be bad or good. He was credited for never losing his composure and having a cool head under the most desperate of circumstances. So those characteristics don't exactly go hand in hand with a bad-temper. For example, if the Kid did have a short fuse that could erupt by the “slightest provocation,” how come then during his confinement he was able to control himself calmly against Deputy Bob Olinger’s constant taunting and verbal abuse?

Miguel Antonio Otero Jr., a friend and admirer of the Kid, wrote in his biography The Real Billy the Kid, concerning this “legendary” trait: “I have been told that Billy had an ungovernable temper; however, I never saw evidences of it. He was always in a pleasant humor when I saw him-laughing, sprightly, and good natured.”

In his biography, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett gave the Kid a bad temper to make him more dangerous, so readers would think Garrett more heroic for going after such a dangerous outlaw. Of course, dime novelists ran with this idea, and therefore created the myth.

Myth: Billy the Kid was illiterate and had no schooling.

Fact: Though he probably had little schooling, the Kid was not illiterate. As a youngster he was an avid reader of books and dime novels. Not only  could he read and write, but he also had artistic and legible handwriting. Judging from the letters he wrote to Governor Wallace, they were articulate and almost error free.

Myth: Jessie Evans and Billy the Kid were childhood friends.

Fact: Jessie Evans was older than the Kid by seven years, so the idea of them playing hide and seek together as children in Silver City isn’t likely. Jesse Evans was under the employment of John Chisum at the time when the Kid was still attending grammar school.  The Kid wouldn’t meet Evans and join his gang until October of 1877.

Myth: Billy the Kid’s employer John Tunstall was a father figure who took the Kid under his wing.

Fact: A bit of an exaggeration. John Tunstall was 24 years old when he was murdered, hardly the age of a father figure. The Tunstall/Bonney relationship wasn’t as close as movies portrayed, to Tunstall, the Kid was simply just another ranch hand and in his letters to his parents in England, Tunstall would name off a few of his employees, like Dick Brewer, but never once did he mentioned the Kid. The Kid did respect Tunstall, but he bonded more with the other employees such as Fred Waite, Charlie Bowdre, George and Frank Coe, and Tom O'Folliard. They become more like brothers to him, then Tunstall.

Myth: Billy the Kid was a large scale rustler.

Fact: The Kid did rustle some cattle with a few of his friends, mostly from John Chisum's herd, but he was not a large scale rustler or leader of a large organized gang. Instead the Kid's reputation as a rustler was grossly exaggerated by the news press. The true title holders of "large scale" rustlers go to John Kinney and Jessie Evans. To learn more about Billy the Kid's criminal activities, read an archive article I wrote "Billy the Kid: How bad was he?

Myth: There were wanted posters on Billy the Kid.

Fact: There were never any “Wanted” posters on Billy the Kid. The closest thing to a wanted poster was a reward notice the governor put in the Las Vegas Gazette in December of 1880. Which read:

$500 Reward
I will pay $500 reward to any person or persons
who will capture William Bonny, alias The Kid, and
deliver him to any sheriff of New Mexico.
Satisfactory proofs of identity will be required.

(No that's not a typo error, Bonney was indeed spelled incorrectly)

So the poster which some of you may have seen which describes Billy the Kid as being 5' 3'' 120lbs with a posted reward for $5,000 dollars to be delivered to Sheriff James Dalton, is not only inaccurate, but never existed. There is also a funeral notice poster which is also a fake. Both are nothing more than souvenirs.

Myth: Billy the Kid shot a man for snoring too loud at a hotel.

Fact: This myth belongs to John Wesley Hardin not Billy the Kid, and even still, it's not true. Unfortunately, some folks confuse the ruthless Hardin with the easy-going Billy the Kid. These two gunfighters couldn't have been more different; Hardin far outshone the Kid when it came to killing.

Myth: At one time Billy the Kid rode with Jesse James.

Fact: Billy the Kid never rode with Jesse James. There is indeed a story that the Kid met Jesse James who was going under the alias of Thomas Howard at a restaurant in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Supposedly they ate together and chatted, and during that meeting Jesse invited the Kid to join his gang in which the Kid flatly refused. Robbing banks and trains did not interest him. Rustling cattle was one thing, but armed robbery was entirely another! Therefore, the myth of Billy the Kid being a member of the James gang at one time is absolutely false.

Myth: Billy the Kid would drink to the extreme and go on drunken rages.

Fact: Some of Billy the Kid's friends said he never drank a drop and others said that he drank occasionally but never to the point of drunkenness. When one is living on the edge and can expect trouble at any moment, the Kid was bright enough to know it was best to keep himself sober and clear-headed. In an era when just about every man would have a drink, the Kid was probably a light social drinker, but was never a raving drunk.

Myth: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were close friends.

Fact: This is another exaggerated issue of the legend of Billy the Kid. To have a friend-turn-lawman shoot his old outlaw buddy makes a great plot for novels and movies. Pat Garrett and the Kid no doubt knew each other, but they were not close friends. In Garrett's biography, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, when Tom O’Folliard (a friend of the Kid's) was mortally wounded and in pain, the dying outlaw pleaded with Garrett that if he was a friend he would put him out of his misery. Garrett replied, “I do not shoot at my friends as you have been shot.” So if the story of Garrett and the Kid being friends is true, why then did Garrett accept the offer to run for sheriff in the first place? He knew his first duty was to bring down the Kid and he did more than that, he ambushed the Kid in the dark, then went one step further and wrote a book about him portraying him as a cold-blooded monster. Some Billy buffs can’t accept the “not friends” theory and believe Garrett let his outlaw friend go and faked his death giving the Kid a chance to go square. Out of all the myths surrounding Billy the Kid that one is a doosey! See the final myth at the bottom of this page.

Myth: The most popular one of all: “Billy the Kid killed 21 men, one for each of  year of his life.”

Fact: Due to research and claims by those who knew him, we already came to the conclusion that the Kid never saw his 21st birthday. So we can scratch that one, as far as the 21 men he killed. Let's look at the tally:

The Kid was solely responsible for the deaths of Frank Cahill (self-defense), Joe Grant (self-defense), James W. Bell and Bob Olinger (while escaping jail and an upcoming hanging).

The Kid was one of many gunmen involved in the killing of Billy Morton, Frank Baker, William McCloskey, William Brady, and George Hindman. That makes five. Keep in mind the Kid wasn’t the only one firing, and his bullets may or may not have found their mark.

Then there’s the controversial killing of Deputy James Carlyle. A deputy who was mistakenly shot and killed by his own posse who they thought  was Billy the Kid. Of course the posse blamed the killing on the Kid, which caused him to lose what little favor he had with the public and not to mention any hopes of receiving a pardon from the governor. After looking into the shooting by reading the eyewitnesses' accounts and the posse's behavior at the scene of the crime, evidence appears to be against the posse. If the Kid had been tried for this murder, he most likely would've been acquitted due to circumstantial evidence. Therefore, Billy the Kid should not get the credit for killing Carlyle.

The Kid was blamed for killing Buckshot Roberts, but it was Charlie Bowdre who gave the feisty gunman his fatal wound. The Kid was also credited for killing another Dolan man, Charlie Crawford, during the big battle at McSween's house, but the true gunman was Fernando Herrera (Doc Scurlock's father-in-law), who shot Crawford as he rode towards town to join Peppin's posse during the siege at McSween's house. Another one pinned on the Kid was the killing of Robert Beckwith as he  escaped from McSween's burning house, but credit most likely went to another Regulator or a stray bullet; Billy the Kid in the meantime, was too busy running for his life in another direction. Lastly, he was blamed for killing a Mescalero agency clerk, Morris Bernstein. While the Kid and his cohorts were watering their horses at a nearby spring several yards away, a gunfight broke out between Bernstein and Atanacio Martinez (who was riding with the Kid), which resulted in Martinez killing the clerk. In all of these above killings Billy the Kid never even fired a shot or was anywhere never the victim, but even so, legend has credited them all to him. But now that we know better, we won't count any of these.

So in actuality, the Kid single handedly killed four men and participated in five shootings, now that makes the grand total of nine men. Note: these men were either killed in self-defense or during acts of war and were dangerous gunmen. Contrary to the myth, Billy the Kid did not kill a man just to see him kick or to prove his toughness.

Myth: Billy the Kid was not killed on July 14, 1881, but lived to be an old man.

Fact: How I cringe to bring this one up, but it's probably the most debated topic on Billy the Kid, which means I have no choice. Just like with Jesse James and Butch Cassidy, there's a great many people who believe the Kid's death was a complete hoax and the famous outlaw rode off into the sunset and lived happily ever after. Well, this is just another tall tale added to the legend of Billy the Kid. This endless and heated debate can be compared to the argument of UFOs or Darwinism where people on both sides just talk circles around one another and get nowhere. I could easily talk myself blue in the face trying to convince some people that the Kid met his fate on July 14, 1881, and not even make a dent and they couldn't convince me otherwise. No one more than me would love to believe that Billy the Kid wasn't killed, but in the end he lived a peaceful and normal life. So with an open-mind  I researched the story of Brushy Bill Roberts, an old man who claimed to be Billy the Kid and not only did I find his claim complete nonsense, but incongruous and an insult to the memory of Billy the Kid. Even so, Brushy Bill Robert's name has become symbolic with Billy the Kid's and the debate will live on.

I'd be the first to admit that the death of Billy the Kid is surrounded by conflicting testimonies, but that doesn't mean the Kid wasn't killed. If a robbery takes place at a bank, and investigators interview ten witnesses, they will hear ten different versions of what happened, what those people saw and how they perceived it. Even though the information given is conflicting, it doesn't mean the robbery never took place. The investigators then do their own research of the evidence and try to match eyewitness testimonies and then come to a conclusion. So after my investigation, I came to the conclusion that Billy the Kid was indeed killed on July 14, 1881 by Sheriff Garrett. Let's think about this logically, during the pursuit for Billy the Kid, Garrett shot and killed two of his friends, O'Folliard and Bowdre, because he thought they were the Kid, obviously this tells us that Garrett meant to kill Billy the Kid by any means necessary -now what kind of a friend is that?! Why also, would Garrett help the Kid fake his death after the Kid humiliated him by escaping his jail and killing two of his deputies? There's also no way Garrett could have gotten away with accidentally killing another man by mistake and then passing the body off as the Kid without word leaking out or the Kid suddenly reappearing in the area. Why would Deluvina Maxwell visit the Kid's grave for years following his death or Fort Sumner residents chipping in and buying the “Pals” tombstone, if the Kid wasn't really buried there?

On another note, when Brushy Bill Roberts was questioned, he couldn't remember important events that happened in the Kid's life, such as his escape from Lincoln (Brushy claimed there was no shooting going on, which means Olinger and Bell weren't killed). Brushy also looked no way shape or form like Billy the Kid. Brushy had gray eyes with yellow specks while the Kid had clear blue eyes; Brushy had a squarer shaped jaw while the Kid's was rounder; the ears are completely different and lastly, Billy's shoulders are much more slopped and narrower than Brushy's. Brushy was also illiterate, in which the Kid was not. Lastly, Brushy's niece, Mrs. Geneva Pittmon, would say that Brushy's birth date is recorded in the family bible as 1879, which means he was a toddler still running around in short pants when the Kid was killed. This is just a small sample of my argument.

Maybe it's easier for some people to believe conspiracy theories that the Kid escaped assassination and lived to a ripe old age, than to accept conflicting testimony, and because most would like a happy ending. But the truth of the matter is, since his death is controversial and facts are conflicting, it's not because his death was a hoax, but most likely he was killed not by coincidence, but by a planned ambush.

For more on the “Billy the Kid and Brushy Bill Roberts Debate” check out my web page Billy vs. Brushy.